Sunday, May 23, 2010

If I wanted to live by 1600s standards, I would be Amish

Recently I have read several contemporary Friends' writings that tries to align themselves with early Friends. I also have witnessed numerous occasions during discussions early Friends being brought up and used against others to bolster claims of un-Quakerly acts and thoughts. Are we listening to God or to our egos when we enlist early Friends to support our claims? These holier-than-thou statements help to reinforce deep divisions within Quakerism and drive people away.

For a long while, I have been frustrated with this problem of Holier-than-thou stances made by some Friends, but I have not been able to articulate my concern. As I have thought about this more, I realized that I had this same frustration for a long time with Christianity in general. I believe that the roots of Quakerism are fundamental to our faith, but Quakerism should not be fundamental towards the roots, because we are a faith of continuing revelations, which is a similar view I currently hold of Christianity. This is why we as Friends still gather each week in our communities to hear the continuing revelations from God. If we believe that early Friends really figured it all out, why should we still gather for waiting worship? Maybe we should then just study early Friends' writings for an hour, instead of having meeting for worship.

Personally I don't want to be an early Friend. I am a 21st Century Friend. I do indulge responsibly in the tavern culture, I like to date non-Quaker women, I enjoy listening to sermons at other churches on Sunday and several other things that early Friends frown upon.

Even with that statement, I do recognize the roots of Quakerism came from these valiant Friends, who under threats of jail and death, continue to speak out their convictions. They carried forth a powerful, revolutionary messages of peace, of continuing revelations, and of being able to have a personal relationship with the Lord without the need for an intermediary, all of which are still very relevant in today's world. They successfully sought to have equality in spoken language. I am grateful that I can trace my beliefs back to these roots, but my beliefs are updated to current day. I do not have to reconcile if I am willing to be hung in Boston Commons for what I believe, like Friends who first came to the New World, but I do consider how to maintain integrity while I am on the internet.

Quakerism today is very diverse and looks different than it did in 1660 or even 1850, just like the whole world has changed in the last 350 years. Quakerism has changed as the world has changed. As I look at the branches of Quakerism and reflect on my vast experiences with the different branches, I am amazed at how diverse our faith is and how thankful I have been to be able to worship with fellow Friends from all of the branches. Each branch have retained the essence of the roots, but each branch chooses different ways to live out the Quaker faith. We may disagree, but lets not forget that we are all related in this continued discernment.

These debates about who is truer to Early Friends turn people off to Quakerism and they are not relevant. For me, I am more interested in questions, like: What is God calling us to do today in this time? Our religion does have standards for accountability within the community by using Faith and Practice and the Bible as guides, so we do not need to hold ourselves accountable to people who died 300 years ago. For myself, I am attracted to monthly meetings and churches that are alive with the Holy Spirit, not ones trying to live according by 1600s standards. If I was, I would be Amish.

-Greg Woods


Faith said...

A really challenging post, Greg. You're right that Friends history shouldn't be used as a weapon and that it is not the ultimate authority. God still moves today and is doing new things. But past experience can guide us and inform us. It's just a problem if it becomes the ultimate trump card and the only authority over our spiritual lives.

Martin Kelley said...

Hi Greg: good stuff. For what it's worth, the academic obsession with Quaker history is about 100 years old or so. From the beginning the rise of "Quaker history" has been tied to the arguments of the day. We want to boil "Quakerism" down to it essentials and separate out what is core from what was an artifact of 17th century England. Each branch raises up historians who argue that its churches' focus is the essential of those early Friends.

I consciously try not to use early Friends as justification. But I do use them for reference. I think a lot of the problem is we all have stereotypes about them. When I go back and read the old Books of Discipline, I find them much more nuanced and interior-focused than we give them credit for.

You mention taverns, for example. It's not that earlier Friends thought everyone couldn't handle their liquor. They saw that some people couldn't and that spending a lot of time there tended to affect one's discernment and God-centeredness. They also saw that some people got really messed up by alcohol and eventually came to the conclusion that the safest way to protect the most vulnerable in the spiritual community was to stay out.

The observations and logic are still valid. I've known senior members of my Quaker community who have alcohol problems but we don't know how to talk about it because we've decided it's a personal decision.

What I try to do is not focus on the conclusions of early Friends but to drop into the conversations of early Friends. As I said, the old Books of Discipline are surprisingly relevant. And I love Thomas Clarkson, an Anglican who explained Quaker ways in 1700 and talked about the sociology of it more than Friends themselves did. It's a good way of separating out rules from knowledge. When we ground ourselves that way, we can more readily decide which of the classic Quaker testimonies are still relevant. That keeps us a living community testifying to the people of today. For what it's worth, there's quite a bit of mainstream interest in the stodgy traditions most of us have cast off as irrelevant....

Sorry we missed you at Pendle Hill last week. It'd be nice to figure out some more hands-on, low-cost gathering event we could have in the DC-Philly corridor...

Pat said...


Comrade Kevin said...

Purity tests or contests of any sort, to me, have no place in any meeting. I use the Bible as a basis for discernment, but I'm not here to out-Jesus anyone, either.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post Greg! I too dislike it when some Quakers say that we should be just like the early founders & get back to the "real" Quaker faith. But Quakerism is not a stagnant faith. We are open to new revelations and insights. Our faith is evolving in other words through the workings of the Holy Spirit. I also do not want to go back to the Quaker peculiarities of saying "Thee" and "thou" or just wearing gray clothing. This is the 21st century after all. I personally like our diversity.

William Penn House said...

Faith: You make a great point about past experiences. I agree! I have always believed that we should always learn from the past, so we don't just keep repeating the same mistakes over. Also we should

Martin: I think we can and should appreciate the knowledge and the wisdom of early Friends. With that same token, I think we should appreciate also the knowledge and wisdom of Friends since then too.

Yes lets plan something. There are several places we can hold a low cost event like William Penn House, cool meetinghouses, etc...

chelavery said...

I sometimes find great inspiration and guidance in the writings of early Friends -- but that inspiration is because their words speak to my condition; it is not because early Friends have any special authority. I wish we would read their writings as they advised us to read the Bible: in the spirit that gave them forth -- taking away only that which has life and Light in our own experience. Treating their teachings as a ultimately authoritative is a Quaker oxymoron.

TheYellowDart said...

I think there is an important distinction to be made here. Being true to the underlying principle of Early Quakers and Early Christians is the important point. We don't necessarily have to do the same things though. I personally believe George Fox was trying to imitate Christ and His followers in principle while adapting or contextualizing that for 17th century England. Most of the historic Quaker Testimonies come straight out of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. We need to stay true to Early Friends and Early Christians in principle while reinterpreting that into each era's practices. How do we advance the Simplicity Testimony in this era. What does that look like in our culture? Do we need to go all the way Amish to stay true to that principle or are there other more relevant ways to approach it. I believe the principle of ongoing revelation is an important early principle that you mentioned you want to stay true to. I agree. That is what George Fox did with Christ's teachings. He adopted the principles expressed in Jesus' teachings and example and was led by the Holy Spirit to make that relevant to his culture which was very different that of Galilee 1600 years ago. We need to look to the same place as Fox did - get the principles from the teachings and example of Christ, and then wait on the Holy Spirit for direction to apply that in our unique time and place. Contextualization is the key IMO. (BTW, I am all for DC get-togethers, I am not too far away in MD. I am new to Quaker meeting (but have read Quakers extensively), and I would love to hook up with you guys sometime.)

Peter Blood-Patterson said...

Greg is write in making sure we do not use early Friends' writings as many religious communities use scripture and religious traditions as "proof tests". Our authority is the living voice of Christ mediated through the faith community.

The reason, however, why so many of us turn back to early Friends, is that the modern day versions of Quakerism are so milquetoast (did I spell that right?!) by comparison.

Early Friends were given by God the gift of absolutely revolutionary forms of worship, decision-making, and I would add theology. These amazing approaches nearly disappeared under the twin assaults of evangelical Protestant encroachment (over reliance on the scripture, programmed worship, etc.) on the one hand and liberal idea forums on the other.

Delving deeply into early Quaker thought and practice gives us the possibility of rediscovering what was so powerful about the way those communities were rooted in the Living Christ. But you're absolutely right Greg: the relationship must exist NOW between our faith families and the guiding voice of God - it can't exist with people 350 years ago or their ideas.

Jeffrey Hipp said...

Great post, Greg. I like to say that our spiritual tradition, including the Bible and the stories and writings of past generations of Friends, are useful as a spiritual toolkit, rather than as a mold we fit ourselves into. We rummage around in the box, pull out all sorts of spiritual tools and technology to see how they could be used in helping us to live a more faithful life.

Shannon said...

I don't know. I've seen a lot of comments to this post referring to using the Bible as one's guide, which is correct, but I have not seen that in any Quaker meeting. I've been an attender at Quaker meetings in two cities, in opposite sides of the country, over the last 7 years, and they have never felt like Christian sects.

Mark Wutka said...

I am one who finds a lot of inspiration in the writings of early Friends. Certainly there are things that pertain more to the 17th century, but they were human beings trying to be faithful to God, and experienced the same inward spirit that is available to us today.
With love,

Julian said...

Trying to live like early Quakers brings up a lot of questions. What would they have thought about computers, televisions, and automobiles? Telephones, doctors, food grown with pesticides and chemical fertilizers? What would they have thought about our attempts (or lack thereof) to live like Jesus and his followers did? And our attitudes towards the bible? How are we doing on "let he who is without sin cast the first stone?" How well would they, early Quakers, measure up on following that bible verse? Are computer games better than gambling?

Mark Wutka said...

Early Friends thought of themselves as practicing "primitive Christianity revived", yet as far as I know they didn't worry about whether to dress, eat, or talk like 1st century Christians. Their link to primitive Christianity was in their experience of Christ, and that they found their experience matched what was described in the scriptures. I would hope that when we talk about living like early Friends we would be talking about obedience, humility, faithfulness, self-sacrificing love, and being made into the image of God.
With love,

William Penn House said...

I do find inspiration in early Friends, but I also find inspiration in more recent Friends' writings as well. One of my favorite books is Testament of Devotion by Thomas Kelley. I don't want to say we should not find inspiration from these Friends, but we should be wary about how we use early Friends against other Friends to make a point or if we try to play the holier-than-thou card. All I am advocating for is mindfulness. Something I need to be reminded about myself at times too.

Anonymous said...

IS VERY GOOD..............................

Robert C said...

Back in the day I read a theology book entitled, well I dont remember. It was "The Eternal Return of the Mythical Age" or something like that. The discussion was about how the past is mythologized and then set up as an absolute against which to contrast ourselves. An attempt which is itself flawed as we contrast ourselves against something that never was.

To study history, to learn history, is wisdom. But it does not mean it becomes authoritative.

Too frequently the past is held against the present as a weapon by the elder generation (I'm pointing at myself here) out of fear of what is modern, rejecting because we cant understand it. How would the early Quakers view the Internet, that's a good question. How did they view the printing press? Answer that, and you might get an answer here. They might view the new as opportunity. I sometimes think I hear rejection of what is new because it is new. There is probably more to it than that.

Susan Griffin said...

Greg--I appreciate your thoughtful analysis and agree with the your perspective. Years ago, I went to American University to hear the Dalai Lama. He began his presentation with the statement that if whatever our faith tradition was, if it were working for us, there was no need to change and he suggested that we stick with what was working. He then communicated the Buddhist view. It began with the notion that "Everyone wants to be loved, everyone want to be happy." That humanity ties us together and offers a way to connect with those with whom we have little in common.

Thank you, Susan

Bill Rushby said...

Greg's comments reveal a lack of knowledge of the Amish and a stereotyped notion of who they are.

The Old Order Amish are very much a *21st Century* religious group, and a thriving one at that. To illustrate, one of their thriving businesses is production of produce for Walmart stores. Not exactly a 16th Century enterprise!

I have heard some Friends describe the Amish as relics of the past. In Barnesville OH it is the Friends who are shriveling and dying out, while the Amish trot past the Stillwater meetinghouse in buggies, carts, ever larger numbers.

Let's set the record straight!

Bill Rushby

William Penn House said...

re: Bill

First off, the title is tongue-in-cheek.

But I stand by my title and I am not ignorant of the Amish. Yes they are adapting to the 21st century, but they are certainly not living with the technologies of the 21st century, like electricity, driving a car, the telephone, etc.... (Yes there are exceptions, like there is usually a phone of some kind in Amish communities for emergencies,etc...) So to be accurate maybe I should have said 1800s standards.

Yes, Amish are growing by a lot, but their growth isn't due to any kind of outreach. Their growth is from continuing to have large families generation after generation. They are still a very insular community, much like earlier Friends (especially mid 18th to mid 19th century).

If we want to once again begin to be an insular community, where we abide by old standards (which is my main point), then Quakerism will die out or we will need to make more Quaker babies.

(Either way we need more Quaker babies, but that is a sidenote.)

Again I think early Friends have a lot to still offer us, but if we only focus on their writings, we would leave out some amazing Quaker writings, like Rufus Jones, Thomas Kelley, Margaret Hope Bacon, and others, even all of these great Quaker blogs.

- Greg

Bill Rushby said...

Actually, having lots of children does not necessarily enable a faith community to grow. The children must also adopt the faith of their forbears. The Amish are, for the most part, very successful in passing their faith on to their children. Friends are notoriously unsuccessful in doing so.

The Amish vary in level of insularity but, on the average, are probably much less insular than you think. Many of them interact easily and regularly with outsiders.

The Amish relationship to cars and telephones is more complex than one might imagine. Most Amish rely partly on neighbors or unofficial taxis for transportation. And many of them have voice mail service. Of course, the most conservative would not.

You did not mention the large volume of journals, memoirs and other literature produced by Friends between the early period and the 20th Century. Many contemporary Friends are aware of Woolman's journal, but it is only the tip of the iceberg. This literature helps one to understand how classical Quaker faith and practice worked.

William Penn House said...


You made good points about how the Amish are successful at passing down their religion/lifestyle to their children.

Yes most First Day Schools are failing young Friends in many ways, speaking from someone who was raised in a First Day School.

Yeah in my previous comment I oversimplified the Amish. I have seen Amish in unofficial taxis, but I do think they are an insular community. Yes they are good neighbors and savvy business people, but, from what I have read and seen, they rarely accept new converts, so that is what I mean by insular community.

Yes there are a great volume of Friends writings spanning the generations since Early Friends. The list is too numerous. Bill, if you want to share some that you have found inspiring, please do.


Bill Rushby said...

Thanks for replying! I apologize for commenting so much on the Amish. I don't want to wear you out on the subject.
Actually, the urge to evangelize has been a persistent impulse among the Amish for decades. Some of this began when an Italian immigrant (I guess he was an immigrant) started prodding the Old Order Amish to evangelize back in the 1950s(?). Some of them recognized that he was right on target, and developed evangelistic interests. A group emerged somewhere along the way. which became known as the New Order Amish. They are very avidly evangelistic, even doing prison ministry (something the Beachy Amish Mennonites have done for a long time).
Ironic as it may be, the New Order Amish have more difficulty keeping their children in their faith than more conservative groups. I promise not to comment on the Amish anymore in this thread; I don't want to hijack your theme, which is really not about the Amish. In a separate post, I would like to address some other issues you have raised. Thanks for your patience. Rambling Rushby!

Bill Rushby said...

You asked me to identify some favorite journals and memoirs from the "Middle Period" of Quaker history. Let me begin by pointing out a good site to search for bibliographic references to Quaker literature, both past and present: the Tri-College library catalogue of Haverford, Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr Colleges
Another resource, the Earlham School of Religion Digital Quaker Collection includes the full text of many Quaker writings, and it has good search capabilities. I have never used this one, partly because we have a substantial family library of old Quaker books. I am sure that the Earlham collection is much larger, so I have exploring it on my "to do" list! More later.

Bill Rushby said...

One Quaker journal from the middle period that I would recommend is: Grellet, Stephen, 1773-1855,Memoirs of the life and gospel labours of Stephen Grellet / edited by Benjamin Seebohm .
Publisher Philadelphia : H. Longstreth, 1877
Stephen Grellet was born into a family of French Catholic manufacturers, I believe, at Limoges in southern France. He was educated by the strict and pious Jansenist religious order. As a teenager, he fled for his life from the French Revolution, where aristocratic manufacturers and their families were at risk of being slaughtered. Grellet wound up on Long Island, where he encountered the spirituality of classical Quakerism. He participated in a "religious opportunity" involving two English women Friends ministers, and their testimony pierced his heart and soul. He was converted, and soon moved to Philadelphia. A "fast learner", Grellet began preaching the Gospel and made his first religious visit before he was even recognized as a minister. He called the meeting he attended "a school of the prophets".
Stephen Grellet became one of the greatest evangelists Friends ever produced (admittedly, with the help of his Catholic theological education). As I recall, he made four extensive overseas religious visits, as well as many American travels at a time when such journeys were perilous. His ministry was well received by spiritually-minded Catholic nuns, prisoners of war from Scandinavia, by small groups of pietists on the European continent, by Alexander I of Russia and members of the Russian nobility, as well as by many ordinary people.
I received my first 900 page copy of Grellet's memoirs from an elderly couple from the Chestnut Ridge Meeting at Barnesville OH. I read the book through maybe two or three times until it began to fall apart! Grellet's memoirs were a favorite of my parents-in-law, old time Conservative Friends from Iowa/Kansas.
I recommend Grellet's memoirs as a sample of the best of the best from classical Quakerism. I'll write about some more journals/memoirs, as I have opportunity.
Bill Rushby